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Airline Deregulation Act Preempts Tort Claim For Negligent Baggage Handling – Aviation

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In Wilson v. Caribbean Airlines Ltd., plaintiff was
traveling from Guyana to New York on Caribbean Airlines Limited
(“CAL”). Prior to boarding, plaintiff’s suitcase was
taken to a staging area and loaded onto the flight. Upon arrival in
New York, plaintiff was selected for a customs inspection that
revealed more than two kilograms of cocaine in his suitcase.
Plaintiff was arrested and released on bail, but the charges were
subsequently dropped. Plaintiff filed suit alleging state law tort
claims that CAL negligently handled his baggage, allowing the drugs
to be planted without his knowledge. CAL moved for summary judgment
arguing preemption under the Airline Deregulation Act

Per the ADA, a state may not enact or enforce a law
“related to a price, route, or service” of an air
carrier. In deciding CAL’s motion for summary judgment, the
court applied the three-part test first enunciated by then-District
Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor in Rombom v. United Airlines,
, 867 F. Supp. 214 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), to determine whether
plaintiff’s tort claim was preempted.

The threshold inquiry under the Rombom test is whether
the “activity at issue in the claim is an airline
service.” Plaintiff argued the relevant activity was
“securing passengers’ baggage from drug trafficking”
and “protecting passengers’ baggage from having drugs
planted in it.” The court found that those acts were part of
CAL’s agreement to transport the baggage and that “baggage
handling is, without question, an airline service.”

Since the activity implicated a “service”, the court
moved to the second prong, which looks at whether the claim
“affects the airline service directly or only tenuously,
remotely, or peripherally.” Plaintiff argued that allowing
drugs to be placed in his bag was not directly related to safety or
baggage handling because it is the opposite of what a passenger
expects. The court found that the end result occurred because of a
failure to take adequate precautions, which directly impacts the
airline’s baggage handling procedures.

The final prong is whether the “underlying tortious conduct
was reasonably necessary to the provision of the service.” The
court found this prong satisfied because plaintiff only claimed
that CAL negligently failed to prevent the planting of drugs from
happening. There was no evidence that CAL or its employees were
involved in the drug plant.

Based on the foregoing, the court granted CAL’s motion for
summary judgment. Per the court, this was a “difficult
conclusion” because it left plaintiff without a remedy for
“serious damage arising from a situation for which he bears no
fault.” The court noted, “[p]erhaps it is some comfort to
believe that this case might supply a vehicle by which some higher
authority can finally and authoritatively decide the extent of the
ADA’s preemptive effect on tort claims.”

Wilson v. Caribbean Airlines
, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124051 (E.D.N.Y.
Jul. 13, 2022).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
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